The Mountain Gorilla Experience in Rwanda

Agashya watches his family and us, relaxed but attentive.

Agashya watches his family and us, relaxed but attentive.

Just one hour in the presence of mountain gorillas in the Virunga Volcanoes of E. Africa can make you rethink who and what you are. We just led an ecotour through the three national parks of Rwanda: Nyungwe in the southwest, Akagera in the northeast and Volcanoes in the northwest. At dinner on the last evening of the eight-day tour we asked what people enjoyed most and memories of the gorillas were high on everyone’s list.

The gorilla experience begins with an overnight stay in a Musanze hotel or a lodge near the park entrance. The next morning starts early with a quick breakfast before heading up to the park. There your guide or driver meets with the park rangers to decide which of ten families of gorillas will be your host. They limit each group to eight tourists and try to match the hiking skills and abilities of guests to the distance and challenge of the terrain, but the gorillas ultimately determine how challenging the day will be as they wander through their territories. Our tour group of ten people was split into two smaller groups of five based on physical abilities. Our “fast” group was fit and everyone able to hike quickly. The slower group was older and had some heart, lung, or knee issues that affected their hiking ability at the altitude of 8500 to 9000 feet.

While we waited for our guides, we drank coffee and tea and conversed with people from all over the world, all of which had come to see the mountain gorillas. Our slower group met with Oliver and Ferdinand, the guides who would take us to see the Agashya family. From the headquarters office, we drove several miles and parked in a small village to begin our slow, steady trek upward through potato and pyrethrum fields. Porters offered to carry our gear and assist us with climbing through the harder spots. Two kilometers later we crossed through the stone-wall boundary into the park where trekking through bamboo thickets and fern openings becomes slicker and more challenging. Two and one half hours after starting, we were near the gorillas. The guides collected our walking sticks, water bottles and extra gear and left them behind with the porters while we continued up another three minutes into the presence of a large silverback, Agashya, and his family.

Four Czech friends in the Hausenblas family and our grandson Tim (standing center) were the hardy hikers who hiked higher and further to see gorillas.

Four Czech friends in the Hausenblas family and our grandson Tim (standing center) were the hardy hikers who hiked higher and further to see gorillas.

It was a long and somewhat challenging trek but the hour watching young gorillas wrestle and tumble, mother gorillas nursing or tending their babies and Agashya watching over it all is humbling and inspiring.

Mountain gorilla populations in Rwanda, Uganda and Democratic Republic of Congo have grown in the past two decades from a low of 230 to more than 880 in the recent census of 2013. Tourism fees provide tens of millions of dollars to support guards, guides, and researchers that protect these vulnerable primates from poachers. Hundreds of millions of dollars in lodging, food and transportation income support local communities and the economies of the three nations. Five percent of revenues from the $750 gorilla permits goes directly back to the villages surrounding the park. The investment in the future protection and understanding of these magnificent primates and human relatives depends on this tourism transaction.

When a 450-pound mountain gorilla studies you, looking deep into your eyes, there is a moment of connection that transcends the need for language. The gorillas tolerate our presence. Agashya’s expression speaks volumes. He is patient with this daily intrusion and you have to wonder if he knows how tenuous the survival of his family is, how dependent they are on humans fighting to conserve these special places where they can live in their own habitat, wild and free. This daily détente with our cousins is worth every dollar, every step up the mountain.

-Tim Merriman

What’s On Your Dashboard?

Screen Shot 2014-01-22 at 1.14.02 PMI remember hearing Hazel Henderson, author of Paradigms of Progress, speak many years ago at a sustainability conference. She suggested that operating the American economy with GDP (Gross Domestic Product) was like flying a Boeing 747 with just one instrument, a speedometer. It doesn’t tell you much about how you are doing in a triple bottom-line, sustainable way. I liked the metaphor but also like the application to managing a non-profit or government agency or business.

Too often we manage a parks, zoo, museum or nature center by monitoring only the total attendance. Attendance is important but it is not the only thing and may not be the most important indicator of success.

I am always an advocate for knowing what indicators matter in our work. Do we want more attendance, increased donations, improved feedback on experiences, more volunteers, less vandalism, longer stays in a facility, more members, more advocacy or what? I still don’t think the vague hope that we are making a difference with our work endears us to budget managers. Too many organizations count people who go through their facilities with no sense of what that means. Perhaps our bathrooms were the real appeal or the only appeal in some cases.

A logic model with carefully identified indicators of change that you update each year provides an annual checkup, but we can’t manage businesses by monitoring only once a year. You need some sort of real or virtual dashboard with multiple measures of success. The good news is there are tools to do this if you want to do it virtually with software. Just use a search engine with keywords “dashboard software.” If you are skilled with business software, you might like working with one of these and they do allow you to share a visual dashboard over an Internet site easily. They are somewhat expensive and require some technology skill.

I am more of an advocate for low-tech solutions like putting charts and graphs up on a bulletin board, but I have always managed an office or site where that was easy to do. I think having a dashboard of sorts, with the varied measures of success posted monthly is a good idea. I also like talking about the most important indicators at each weekly staff meeting to keep everyone focused on what allows us to succeed as an organization.

The great thing about a good dashboard is that it’s encouraging. You can manage your work and adjust variables until you see improvement. Flying blind seems easy until you crash. We have seen too many interpretive organizations become last year’s story during budget cuts. Good intentions often do not survive the hard decisions of what to keep, what to let go. Creating the dashboard with input from staff and your supervisors is a great way to find consensus about what success will look like in measurable terms. It’s not as easy as just counting bodies through the door but it’s more sustainable.

-Tim Merriman

Five Ways to Keep Your Special Event Special

Think about Mardi Gras, and New Orleans comes to mind. Pamplona evokes images of the running of the bulls. Times Square in NYC seems to own New Year’s Eve. I noted several other cities with events but the big televised ones with strong brand identity were at Times Square.

Christmas in Kailua-Kona includes hula performances at the Hulihee Palace and a street fair with local products and music.

Christmas in Kailua-Kona includes hula performances at the Hulihee Palace and a street fair with local products and music.

Special events help create a community or heritage site brand. But there are some ways you can make it more likely that you will own a lasting special event that makes money and builds brand.

  1. 1.    It should arise from your sense of place, your history. When you copy an event from somewhere else, you are not likely to become the place identified with the event. And they have more history with running the event profitably.

2.    It should show off what you normally do as a community or organization.  Great events bring people from other places to your site or community. If the event shows off local vendors, craft products, unique dining and lodging and regional music and art, they may be back. If you are bringing vendors in from everywhere (state fair kinds that sell at everything), souvenirs from other countries, generic food and music from a distant culture, you are diluting your brand (unless your event is intended to have an international flavor). People associate music and art with their favorite experiences and they buy souvenirs to recall the event and great times.

The Sticky Rice Festival in Shibakawa, Japan, celebrates a local food and the people in the community.

The Sticky Rice Festival in Shibakawa, Japan, celebrates a local food and the people in the community.

3.    Repeat and improve it each year. You learn from a specific event if you do it each year and profits grow with better concessions, promotion and experience enhancements. Doing a different kind of event on the same dates each year will leave you working too hard and making less money. Repetition lets you build the tradition and the inventory that supports it – decorations, props, storylines, etc. Avoid Haley’s Comet, Leap Year and centennial events unless you have lots of money to spend. New events require investment and don’t necessarily build a lasting relationship in the community or at the site.

 4.    Place it with a holiday or dates that people want to be out and about with their families and friends. In the U.S., spring break, Easter, Memorial Day, July 4th, Labor Day and Halloween create opportunities for longer events that can be strong in branding and allow larger numbers of people to attend.

Children learn the Swedish tradition of dancing around the Christmas tree at Skansen, a unique outdoor attraction in Stockholm.

Children learn the Swedish tradition of dancing around the Christmas tree at Skansen, a unique outdoor heritage attraction in Stockholm.

5.    Build a strong partnership with the most appropriate local or regional media – radio and TV especially. They will usually trade ads and promotion for being linked to a winning event, especially if it supports their community or favorite nature center or museum. Businesses will co-sponsor with money or in-kind gifts of transportation, food or lodging if they are carried on all the ads in the right way. Try to hold the event with base costs covered at the start so all profits support the hosting organization or community.

Brand and sense of place are reflections of people feeling an emotional connection, an intimacy with a place, the people and the unique experiences there. You can plan events to strengthen your brand or just let them happen and hope they work. We recommend that you plan your events with natural and cultural heritage as key settings. And if you need help, let us know.

– Tim Merriman

Messages Matter

I just posted the video seen above on my Facebook page after Carolyn Widner Ward (thanks, Carolyn) posted it on hers. I had seen the original award-winning video, La Historia de un Letrero by Alonso Alvarez Barreda, several years ago (thanks to Eliezer Nieves-Rodriguez for the reminder and Dr. Sam Ham for the deep background on his use of it in teaching about zone of tolerance) on YouTube and did not remember where it came from. The original was in Spanish. This recent one is a remake in English and it makes the point – Messages Matter, though the original filmmaker’s intentions were more directed toward creating empathy. When we craft a strong message it causes people to think.

That’s an important point of Sam Ham’s recent book, Interpretation, Making a Difference on Purpose. Sam’s research on messaging for Lindblad Expeditions a decade or more ago led to his improvement of their messaging to encourage donations to the Charles Darwin Research Centre. Donations increased on Lindblad boats by 270% when the new messaging approach was used in their tours. Strong themes that encouraged people to think about the future of the Galapagos made the difference.

Lisa Brochu and I have been using this model below in training to encourage interpreters to craft stronger themes that are more likely to connect with their audiences. It is a target that uses concentric rings to suggest how you can refine a theme to make it more powerful and therefore more likely to influence attitudes of audience members.

The theme is stronger as you move to the center.

The theme is stronger as you move to the center.

The outermost ring is the simplest one and if someone were to stop there, would also be the weakest theme. The next ring inward strengthens the theme by taking a simple statement to the next level of engagement. The next ring inward suggests that using tangibles, intangibles and universals make the theme even more powerful. The center or bullseye of the target suggests that the theme should convey a message by answering the “so what,” as Sam calls it. Why does this idea matter to me? That would be the strongest approach to a theme.

Research suggests that lasting engagement requires us to get people to think more deeply about our theme. Testing your theme at each of these levels helps you determine the theme’s strength or ability to influence your audience.

In terms of the video, the first message is fairly simple and straightforward, “I am blind. Please help.” It is a complete thought and it’s pretty specific. It even includes the intangible of blindness, but it doesn’t help me think about what it’s like to be blind. “It’s a beautiful day, but I can’t see it.” This is a message that puts me in the place of the blind man. How would it be to experience that beautiful day without vision? As a sighted person, it makes me think about my own experience with the day, the weather, the beauty of the scenery.

A strong theme encourages deeper thought and provokes action. If the idea introduced is interesting but does not make me think more deeply about the idea, I may not remember or care much about it. Empathy for a blind man may be automatic but the desire to help is not. Messages matter – when you write themes, make sure they help achieve your objectives.

-Tim Merriman

Why resolutions are so hard to keep

ResolvedEvery year on New Year’s Day, we pledge to be better – maybe we hope to lose weight or gain financial stability or make a job change or just be more loving, kind, and thoughtful as we go about our daily lives. Studies show that most New Year’s Resolutions fail miserably, often before the first month of the year has passed. Why is it so hard to do what we say we will?

My theory on this matter is simple. I believe that most of us set unrealistic expectations. We feel we’ve failed if we don’t achieve complete, one hundred percent success. And at the first sign that we cannot achieve that one hundred percent, we simply stop trying. So one doughnut undoes our resolution to lose weight, and we feel justified in giving up.

I often see this same phenomenon at interpretive sites. Setting goals and objectives amount to the same activity as New Year’s Resolutions. The problem is that goals are often too vague to allow us to measure success (“I want to be a better person” sounds an awful lot like “we want to be the best museum/park/nature center in the world.” Objectives may be more specific, but often to the point of being so restrictive in terms of measuring success that “success” is unattainable.

I’d like to see us all take a kinder, gentler approach towards our selves and our facilities. Recognize that sometimes the attempt at achieving objectives (or resolutions) is a win in and of itself. If you’re not used to working by objectives, you may or may not be able to set reasonable measures. It doesn’t mean you’ve failed if you get eighty percent of the way toward your desired result. It just means you need to rethink your strategies . . . maybe there’s a simple tweak that will get you where you need to be. Or maybe you were reaching for the stars when the mountaintops would have been high enough.

Having personal resolutions and setting measurable objectives in the workplace are both useful tools to motivate us to attempt constant improvement. Use the tool as a prod and a measuring stick, but not as a bludgeon, and you may just find that this is the year you achieve whatever success you crave.

Happy 2014!

Lisa Brochu